The Common Good
March 2010

Of Bread and Salt

by Noemi Mena | March 2010

When those who feel accursed come to our door, are we ready with something holy?

How do we, as people of God, respond to the complex issues surrounding immigration? I am reminded of those wonderful passages in the Hebrew Bible, those verses where God reminds God’s people to be hospitable to foreigners.

God puts it simply: “You all have been there and done that. You all know how hard it is to be away from home. You know the challenges of being a foreigner in a strange land. So you ought to know better. Be good and help out the foreign people in your midst.”

But for the sake of keeping it real, instead of those nice scriptures, I want to look at this one, Mark 7:24-30:

And from thence he arose, and went away into the borders of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered into a house, and would have no man know it; but he could not be hid. Straight away a woman, whose little daughter had an unclean spirit, having heard of him, came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by race. And she besought him that he would cast forth the demon out of her daughter. And he said unto her, “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.” But she answered and said unto him, “Yea, Lord; even the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” And he said unto her, “For this saying go thy way; the demon is gone out of thy daughter.” And she went away unto her house, and found the child laid upon the bed, and the demon gone out.
I thought this was a good scripture because it highlights the layers of issues that surface in dealing with immigration. Here is this woman trying to get services she is not entitled to receive. She probably hasn’t been to the doctor for ages, but since it’s for her daughter, we see her begging. And we see Jesus responding to her as “other.”
While this sense of “you and I are not the same” is captured in his words—“it is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs”—it also reminds us of the economic issues related to immigration. There is this sense that immigrants come to take the little that we have.
And lastly we see the woman insisting on her demands. While she does it with painful humility, she is as outrageous as those immigrants that make demands at public demonstrations.
I myself had a visit from a Syrophoenician woman the other day. She too arrived inopportunely as I tried to get organized for the day. I was in my office on the third floor of our church when I got a call from the reception desk: “Can you come down? There’s a Hispanic woman here who says she needs to speak to a pastor now!”
Perhaps it was the imprints of years of anguish on her brown face that made me quickly decide to take her to the chapel instead of my office. As soon as I brought down the two altar chairs and we sat facing each other, she poured out a torrent of stories.
I quickly learned she was an indigenous woman from a Latin American country. She spoke her indigenous language, Spanish, and some broken English. She explained that recently, while she was pregnant with her last child, she had crossed the border going south to get her teenage daughter, who continually pleaded to come to the United States.
So she planned a quick trip, since she had to return to her work and family responsibilities in the U.S. She crossed to the other side and, after just a few days of rest, this pregnant woman and her teenage daughter crossed the desert back into the United States.
Then she finally told me why she had come to see me. She came to see me because she was struggling with a curse.
She knew this because people kept placing strange objects in her home’s entryway. She said she was tired of cleaning her porch with boiling water and salt—but the curse did not leave. And she went on to say that the curses were not only on her front steps, but in her dreams. She was having dreams of snakes crawling into her womb. Then she finally told me more precisely why she had come.
She came to get something holy—something she could take to her daughter, the one she had gone to get across the border. The young girl had a hard time adapting to the United States, and when her father beat her, someone reported it to the authorities and the girl was taken into foster care. Now, the young girl had become pregnant while in foster care.
The woman was hoping with all her heart that her daughter was not really pregnant, that it was just a snake, like the snake in her dreams. A snake that she might be able to get out of her daughter if I gave her something holy that she could take to her.
Overwhelmed with what I heard, I tapped into her story of pouring hot, salty water on her porch. I told her that Jesus came to make us salt of the earth. And that he made us salty enough to make the devil himself flee. And regarding the intrusive snake, it occurred to me to tell her that God had cursed the snake way back in the Garden of Eden. Then I looked around to see if I could find something holy.
I saw a palm branch left over from Palm Sunday, and I anointed it with a little oil. I thought that the Jesus who was received with waving palm leaves and then crucified would certainly feel the pain of this woman who journeyed through the desert in search of hope.
I told her that her daughter would be given a medical test and that it would probably show that it was not a snake, but a precious baby inside her. And we prayed together; I in Spanish and she in her native tongue, praising God.
I sang to her, “Ni lo alto ni lo profundo ni ninguna cosa creada … Me podrán apartar del amor del Señor que es en Cristo Jesús Señor nuestro.” It’s a song based on the Romans passage that says that “nothing, neither heights nor depths, nor anything created”—not even snakes, I added—“could separate us from the love of God.”
I gave her the anointed palm leaf. She thanked me, and left.
As she left, I thought she was right about feeling cursed. She was cursed by colonization and the genocide of her people. She was cursed by oppressive neocolonization, by revolutions gone bad. Cursed by civil wars, by global capitalism. Cursed by anti-immigrant sentiment.
I just want to confess that, like this woman, sometimes I feel I am being cursed. I know it because people keep leaving things on the steps of my church: beer bottles and condoms and human waste that we keep hosing off the surroundings of the church.
What we cannot hose down is the parade of wasted human beings, the tired people and sick people who are looking for some very basic things: food, shelter, work, transportation, money for a prescription, something for bed fleas, something for lice.
Some come from far away to let someone know that their phones, TVs, and minds are being tapped by the government and they want it to stop. Some come to get an antidote for a curse.
Don’t get me wrong: I meet with other pastors and folk from nonprofits; I participate in vigils, sign letters, and go to rallies. I allow college graduates working for the unions to organize me.
But the curse continues.
I guess I need a stronger salt, stronger light.
We know that Jesus grew into his calling. Little by little he understood that his was a ministry without boundaries. We see him changed when he engages the Samaritan woman—a woman in a sense cursed by invasions that had made her culturally and religiously diverse. We see Jesus’ transformation when he lifts up the Good Samaritan as the one who understood who his neighbor was.
In Matthew 25, Jesus gets a little radical by putting it on us to break the curse. He reminds us that God is with the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, and the strangers.
I know deep inside that all the needs we see are opportunities for God’s power and grace to be manifested. We really need to do all we can to help our neighbors to break the multilayered curses they are facing.
As the church of Christ, we need to be ready for those coming to us searching for something holy.

Noemi Mena was pastor of Hispanic ministries at National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C. when this article appeared. This is adapted from a sermon she gave at a Sojourners chapel service.
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